Australia Day has its origins two hundred and thirty four years ago. It was when 1500 souls left England for a perilous journey to an unknown land and future. To arrive at their destination 15,000 miles of sailing to the east coast of Australia lay before them. It took eight months to do so, a feat for which Governor Arthur Phillip should be admired.
A form of celebration to remember the event was held as early as 1817. From thereon, the day knew various names, such as Anniversary Day and Foundation Day. In 1931 Victoria adopted the name Australia Day and in 1946 the Australia Day Council was formed in Melbourne to foster national appreciation of the day’s signifigance.
Those involved in the momentous expedition in 1788 were diverse although three out of every four was a convict. Others included officers, marine, crew, women and children. How many actually finally made it to Botany Bay 18th January before moving on to Sydney Cove Port Jackson, January 26th 1788 is debatable. Sixteen of the 1500 died before the First Fleet actually left Portsmouth, England and during the voyage twenty two children were born with several dying. It is recorded that forty convicts died during the journey while others fell overboard and some even escaped. There were numerous accidents. Taking into account all the factors that could have happened and perhaps should have happened the mortality rate was surprisingly modest. It was a well thought out and organised expedition, far better than the Second Fleet when 280 convicts died with another 200 convicts dying on the Third Fleet.
After leaving Portsmouth, the fleet sailed first to Rio de Janeiro, Portuguese Brazil, then on to Cape Town, South Africa to replenish food supplies. Following was the crossing of the Indian Ocean, finally to Port Jackson. One can only imagine the suffering of the convicts.
Landing was a relief, but it was just the start of the challenges that lay before these people. Governor Phillip immediately got everyone working. Male convicts began to clear the land and erect shelters. Construction then work began on the barracks, governor’s house and a hospital. Phillip’s problems were immense. Upon settlement, glaring neglect showed. For instance there was insufficient female clothing. A list of convicts and their crimes and when they were to be released did not exist. He found there were not enough balls or cartridge papers for the armaments. Then there was human nature which he had to deal with such as officers arguing amongst themselves, fighting between convicts and sailors and theft. Before him were the unknown land and how to feed, protect and shelter everyone and how to administer the law and how to implement it. The list went on and on. Yet in November 1791 Phillip could write to Lord Sydney in London, “I can still say with great Truth and equal Satisfaction that the Convicts in general behave better than could be expected.”
Within seven years, food shortages had given way to a relative bounty. In 1795 the main crops had met the colony’s needs with more than 2000 farm animals being grazed which included cows, cattle, sheep and goats. It was a marvellous achievement and Australians should be proud of this fact.
Australia Day belongs to every citizen of this country, whether we are been here in excess of 10,000 years, more than two hundred years, post war or a recent arrival. It is a day where politics is tossed aside. Aboriginal activist and politician, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price recently said, she is “proud to celebrate this day regardless of background and who are not ashamed of our nation’s history or all we have achieved together”.
That achievement is something that should be highlighted. Success just does not just happen; it has to be worked towards with great effort and fortitude. On January 1st 1901 a new country was born when the six independent colonies federated into one. Over the many years the strides towards a vibrant, liberal democracy which is the envy of the entire world, hence the demand, more than we can absorb, to come this land down under and make it home.
Australia Day is the day for barbecues, sports and a time of reflection, that while no country is perfect and that no people are either, we can put our differences aside and act as one on this special day, this day of celebration.